Rituals of the Modern Maya
Volume 50 Number 4, July/August 1997
by Angela M.H. Schuster
A strong undercurrent of Precolumbian belief pervades much of today's religious practice.
The murmur of chanting filled the Church of San Juan Chamula; the fragrance of pine
needles crushed underfoot mingled with the scent of candles and burning
copal incense. Pilgrims moved slowly from station to station, beseeching
saints for health, wealth, and luck in love. An elderly woman had come with
a shaman bearing fresh eggs and a chicken. Egg in hand, the shaman traced
the woman's body several times, praying aloud as he worked. He then broke
the egg into a bowl, the pattern of its yolk revealing the affliction. With
further incantations and offerings, the shaman "transferred" the
illness to the chicken, which he then sacrificed by breaking its neck. A
three-foot-tall Colonial period polychrome figure of John the Baptist stood
near the altar, dressed in layers of embroidered garments--tokens of gratitude
from those whom he had helped. Patron saint of this Tzotzil Maya church
in highland Chiapas, Mexico, the Baptist was responsible for bringing rain
and ensuring the fertility of crops and animals. Had he assumed the mantle of Chak, the Classic period water god?
||Naj Tunich, a cave in the southeastern Petén of Guatemala, began
attracting pilgrims sometime in the first century A.D.
(James Brady) [LARGER IMAGE]
Despite Catholic trappings, the rites I witnessed in 1996 were rooted
deep in antiquity. In recent years, archaeologists and anthropologists have
opened a dialog with those who practice the old ways, and are coming to
realize just how much Precolumbian ritual has survived. "Considering
that 500 years have elapsed since the Spanish Conquest," says Harvard
University ethnologist Evon Z. Vogt, "I am impressed with the enduring
nature of Classic Maya religious concepts and beliefs."
In the Chol town of Tila, in highland Chiapas, Nicholas Hopkins and Kathryn
Josserand of Florida State University have documented the cult of a "Black
Christ" known as the Señor de Tila, an amalgam of Christ and
Ik'al, a Precolumbian cave-dwelling earth deity. Each January and June,
tens of thousands of pilgrims come to the town to seek the support of the
Señor de Tila, who is venerated both in the local church and in a
nearby rock-shelter, which contains a large soot-blackened stalagmite believed
by townspeople to be a representation of Christ. According to local tradition,
Ik'al is a manifestation of "Earth Owner," the master of souls
who holds the key to health and wealth and must be petitioned and rewarded
through prayers and sacrifice. "For the people of Tila," says
Hopkins, "the Precolumbian idea of making sacrifices to ensure the
well-being of one's family and loved ones echoes Christ's giving of his
life to pay for the sins of the world."
"Modern Maya see little conflict in merging the two faiths,"
says Robert M. Laughlin, an anthropologist with the Smithsonian Institution
who has lived among the Tzotzil of Zinacantan for more than 30 years. "It
is common on feast days for a procession to begin at the Church of San Lorenzo
with a mass for Christ the Sun God and his mother the Moon Goddess, and
then proceed to a nearby hill for the veneration of ancestors and Maya gods,
including Chauk, an earth and water deity."
Dark, secretive, and full of exotic geological formations, caves have
played a key role in Mesoamerican religion for more than 3,000 years, serving
as portals to the Otherworld--the realm of deities, demons, and ancestors.
There are more than 25 known painted caves in the Maya world, the earliest
being Loltún in Yucatán, whose paintings have been dated to
the Late Preclassic, ca. 300 B.C. James Brady of George
Washington University has documented the continued veneration of Naj Tunich,
a two-mile-long painted cave in the southeastern Petén region of
Guatemala. Naj Tunich began attracting pilgrims early in the first century
B.C., when stone platforms were erected just inside
the cave's entrance. Offerings such as ceramics and jadeite pendants were
deposited atop platforms adjacent to several large stalagmite columns. The
majority of the cave's painted inscriptions, some 40 in all, were executed
during the seventh and eighth centuries.
Three verbs associated with pilgrimage--hul (to arrive), pak (to return),
and il (to see or witness events at a foreign place)--pervade the Naj Tunich texts, according to Andrea Stone of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, who has studied the inscriptions. The presence of emblem glyphs from a number
of cities suggests that the cave was used by people living throughout the
region. One inscription notes that lords from the Lowland Maya city of Caracol,
30 miles to the north, performed a k'ak' kuch, or "burning" ritual
in the cave in A.D. 744. Burning incense may have served
to appease local gods and guarantee safe passage for dignitaries traveling
through foreign territory. Brady and his team have recovered potsherds encrusted
with the charred resin of the copal palm spanning the entire Classic period
(ca. A.D. 250-900), attesting the prolonged practice
of such rites.
Today's pilgrims, mostly from the Kekchi villages of Tanjoc and Alta
Verapaz, ten to 15 miles away, come to the cave before the rainy season,
which begins in late May and early June, to burn incense and light candles
to ensure a good harvest. "Though some ritual aspects have certainly
changed," adds Brady, noting the singing of Christian hymns and the
participation of women, "cave worship continues to figure prominently
in Maya religion."
According to Vogt, there are five classes of sacred topography among
the Tzotzil of Zinacantan--vits (mountains), ch'en (holes in the ground such
as caves), hap 'osil (mountain passes), ton (rocks), and te' (trees)--geographic
features rife with spirit activity. "For Zinacantecos," says Vogt,
"mountains are the most important features on the landscape, being
places of contact between heaven and earth." The veneration of mountains,
he believes, stretches deep into the Precolumbian past, serving as the impetus
behind the building of pyramids. "Pyramids are artificial mountains,"
says Harvard University epigrapher David Stuart, "both represented
by the glyph wits" (the Classic period form of the Tzotzil word vits).
According to Stuart, there are numerous references to buildings as mountains
in the epigraphic record, perhaps the best example being temple 22 on the
Copán acropolis. "The building is actually labeled 'mountain,'
its doorway, the gaping maw of the earth monster, a metaphor for a cave,"
he says. "One would have entered the 'cave' of temple 22 to converse
with the ancestral spirits, surely in association with all sorts of ritual
activities, including incense burning and bloodletting."
As caves and mountains occur together in the landscape, both serve as
doorways to the Otherworld. To journey through them and return alive, however,
requires the special talent of a shaman. In antiquity, Maya kings interceded
with the gods and ancestors on behalf of their cities. Today, in many Maya
communities, mayors and healers are one and the same, responsible for their
people's physical and spiritual health. "Shamans are specialists in
ecstasy, a state of mind that allows them to move freely beyond the ordinary
world-beyond death itself-to deal directly with the gods, demons, ancestors,
and other unseen but potent things that control the world of the living,"
says David Freidel of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, who has participated
in shamanic rites at a ch'a-chak or "bring rain" ceremony in Yucatán.
"When we began our summer field season at Yaxuná in 1989,"
recalls Freidel, "the nearby community was in the midst of a crisis.
A severe drought had destroyed two plantings and measures were needed to
ensure the success of a third." With the help of the villagers, Don
Pablo, the local shaman, built an altar of young saplings, baby corn plants,
and hanging gourds--a portal between this world and the next through which
he could summon chakob, or rain gods. For three days, he chanted and prepared
offerings of corn bread, incense, stewed meats, and honey wine. "At
the climax of the ceremony," says Freidel, "Don Pablo, aided by
copious amounts of aguardiente, a sugarcane brandy, entered a trance state
in which he remained for more than ten hours. It is in sleep, whether a
trance or dream state, that Maya spirits communicate with shamans. Shortly
after the ceremony, we heard the deep rumble of thunder. Had the chakob
heard the shaman's prayers?"
According to Freidel, such an altar, known as a ka'an te' or "wooden
sky," represents the cosmos. The leafy green saplings, tied together
several feet above the table's center, symbolize the arching of the Milky
Way across the night sky. Thirteen gourds suspended from the saplings represent
the constellations of the Maya zodiac. The building of the ka'an te' can
be traced back as early as the Classic period, from which there are depictions
on several stone vases, including one from Escuintla in southwestern Guatemala.
Shamans are also traditional healers--bone setters, midwives, and herbalists.
The most skilled are the h'men, doctor-priests who treat the minds, bodies,
and souls of villagers. For the Maya, physical and spiritual health are
one and the same. According to the late Mopán Maya h'men Don Elijio
Panti, ailments could be brought on by a restless soul or profaned gods
and ancestors. To cure an illness took not only prescribed remedies but
Among the Quiché of highland Guatemala, says Barbara Tedlock,
a State University of New York, Buffalo, anthropologist and trained shaman-priest,
"some illnesses can even be a call to serve gods and ancestors."
There are six such illnesses--snake, horse, twisted stomach, dislocated bone,
inebriation, and money loss--all of which incapacitate a patient. To cure
them requires becoming a daykeeper, one who burns incense and offers prayers
at shrines on designated days of the tzolkin, the 260-day sacred calendar.
The Quiché believe that when great shamans die, their souls congregate
at lineage shrines where they worshiped during their lives. As the shamans'
souls accumulate, the shrines--known as warab'alja, literally "sleeping
places"--are endowed with increasing power. Each lineage group has four
such shrines built in the form of small stone boxes where prayers are offered
on specific calendar days and to commemorate births, deaths, marriages,
plantings, and harvests.
"These shrines are also used to demarcate lands owned by a lineage
group," says Dennis Tedlock, also a trained Quiché shaman-priest.
"When a property is sold in the Quiché region, new landowners
remember previous landowners in prayers at recently acquired shrines. The
location of each shrine is dictated by the landscape, there being a distinct
preference for mountains, caves, lakes, and springs."
Linda Schele of the University of Texas at Austin believes that warab'alja
is a derivation of the Classic Maya phrase waybil, which also means "sleeping
house." Waybilob are well known from Classic period sites. In 1989
Juan Pedro Laporte of Guatemala's Instituto de Antropología e Historia
was excavating a large compound of houses and temples at Tikal in the Petén
when he came across just such a shrine embedded in a later altar platform.
An open-sided stone box, the structure was filled with burnt offerings.
Two particularly fine miniature stone shrines, labeled waybil in hieroglyphs,
were found in a cache behind structure 33 at the Classic Maya city of Copán
By studying modern Maya religious practices, archaeologists and anthropologists
are beginning to gain critical insight into rites often depicted in ancient
Maya art. "We still have much to learn about Classic Maya religious
practices," says Vogt, "but the progress made so far is astounding.
The next decade promises to bring even more discoveries as scholars continue
their cooperative work on Maya culture."
Angela M.H. Schuster is an associate editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.
© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America